Immigration Reform Next for Obama Cabinet

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke took a page from their personal histories in making an economic argument for why immigration reform should be the next domestic agenda item for President Barack Obama’s administration.

The pursuit of a better life, both said, gives immigrants an extra motivating factor to take risks and reach further than their circumstances for a dream.

Immigrants “are generating businesses, they are employing people, and I’m happy to say, they are paying their taxes,” Solis said. “There is great potential for our country in so many different ways.”

Speaking at an event Wednesday at the Washington think tank Center for American Progress, Solis and Locke shared their stories as the children of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, respectively, and offered their opinions on the best way to address national immigration issues.

The event came in the same week a bill, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, was unveiled in the House of Representatives, the latest push for reform drafted by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and co-sponsored by several Democratic legislators.

The bill includes provisions for increased border security, enforcement of labor laws, reforming detention procedures, and providing a path for undocumented workers to earn their legalization.

Referring to the recession as “an appropriate time” to introduce a debate, Solis said the nation’s economic recovery is dependent on leveling the job market and bringing immigrants out of informal economies.

Solis, the first Latina state senator in California, said her initial lessons in social justice came from her union organizer father who collectively bargained for his fellow immigrant workers, many of whom spoke limited English.

“Just by speaking up and participating and knowing what’s right, that was the big difference for me that my parents gave me that sense,” Solis said. “The immediate impact is in your family.”

She said the immigrant experience can be a powerful catalyst for success because it develops a good work ethic.

Growing up, Locke said his differences caused him to question the authenticity of his American-ness. He recalled his family being berated by a soldier in the airport as he was leaving for college at about the time of the Vietnam War.

“He yelled and screamed at us and blamed us for the deaths in Vietnam, saying ‘It’s your people that are killing my buddies.’ Here we are Chinese, we aren’t even Vietnamese,” Locke said, calling it an instance of typical Asian stereotyping. “But then a military officer came by and called the soldier to attention and said ‘These are Americans and you them owe an apology.'”

Although Locke said he resented his Asian heritage as a child, he quickly learned American isn’t a type but a characteristic of someone who wants something better. Locke went on to become the first Chinese-American governor in U.S. history.

Both officials said their departments are crafting policy that will affect immigrants in this country, whether it’s strengthening protections for injured workers or cracking down on employers hiring illegal workers, they said.

Solis said a comprehensive law provides a path to legalization. She is confident the American public will accept a reform package if it is explained clearly.

“It means you are going to register, that you are not going to get something for free, that you have to pay back taxes, that you have to get to the back of the line, you have to learn English and you also have to go through criminal background check” Solis said.  “It allows people to come out of the shadows.”

The underground economies where undocumented immigrants are employed, she said, hurt the U.S. economy, but reform would bring those people into the system to pay fines and taxes that will finance things like Social Security and local governments.

To view video of event click here.